Motorola Moto Z review

Announced back in June 2016, the Moto Z was launched alongside the Moto Z Force, a phone with a screen that - just like the Moto X Force - is ‘unbreakable’. Motorola has no plans to launch the Z Force in the UK, but the Moto Z is now here, along with the Moto Z Play, which we've reviewed separately. See 29 best new phones coming soon plus rumours of the upcoming Moto Z2.

Also see: Best Phone Deals

Update 23 November: In a blog post, Motorola has announced that the Android 7.0 update is rolling out this week to the Moto Z (and also Moto Z Force, which is only available in the US). This is obviously good news, but there's a second big benefit, the Moto Z is now Daydream ready, so you can pop it into a Daydream View headset and get a great VR experience. Read our Daydream View review to find out more.

Moto Z review: Price

Motorola originally announced a price of £529.99, but the Moto Z now starts at £479 from Motorola's website. It's undeniably expensive, especially when compared to the £370 Moto Z Play, but it's cheaper than plenty of other flagship phones and the Moto Z is every inch a flagship phone, including the Galaxy S7, Google Pixel XL and iPhone 7.

However, to keep things in context it’s £50 more than the Huawei P9 and £70 more than its modular rival, the LG G5.

If you buy through Motorola's site you can use the Moto Maker tool, but you can't personalise the Moto Z like some of Motorola's other phones. There's a basic choice of black and white models, and internal storage is fixed at 32GB. All you can really do is to add Mods (see below) but you can buy these separately anyway.

Also see: Moto X4 latest rumours

Moto Z review: Features and design

Modular is the name of the game with the Moto Z. It’s a new family of 5.5in phones which has a special 16-pin connector on the rear for accessories that attach with super-strong magnets. We’ll get to those later.

Pinch and hold the Moto Z between two fingers and it feels both amazingly thin and light. It weighs only 136g, so it is exceptionally light for a 5.5in phone, yet feels strong thanks to the aircraft-grade aluminium frame.

Moto Z review - hands-on

Adding to its flagship credentials is a Snapdragon 820 processor, 4GB of RAM and well specified front- and rear cameras.

So what gives? Two things in the main: there isn’t room for a headphone jack, so there isn’t one. Motorola beat Apple in this particular race to the future. In the box is a short USB-C cable which ends in the 3.5mm minijack you’ll need to use any standard headphones. Or, you could just hook up some decent Bluetooth headphones if you have money burning a hole in your pocket.

Motorola Moto Z review

The other trade-off is a small battery. At 2600mAh, it will (read, might) get you through a day, but certainly not the two days that’s promised with the Moto Z Play. For many, having a really thin phone won't be a sensible trade-off for limited battery life.

No corners are cut on the screen, which is a 5.5in super AMOLED with a resolution of 2560x1440. It’s just as good as the Galaxy S7’s, although there are no curved screen edges here.

There’s no always-on option, either. But Motorola has installed IR sensors which bring up the date and time (plus notifications and the ability to interact with them) when you wave your hand over the screen. It's a great feature.

Motorola Moto Z review

Like the Moto Z Play, there’s a square fingerprint reader at the bottom of the screen. It’s instinctive to press it like a home button, but a button this is not. It does work as a way to wake the phone, though, which is handy as the three equally-spaced power and volume buttons are easy to confuse with one another.

On the rear the camera protrudes quite a bit, but a black Style Shell is supplied in the box which – like all other Moto Mods – uses magnets to attach. This brings everything flush and hides the connector from view.

Motorola Moto Z review

But even without this rear cover (shown below, far right), the Moto Z has a pretty attractive rear thanks to subtle horizontal lines in the metal (these are more visible on the white model than the black model shown here). However, both phones are prone to showing marks and fingerprints due to their smooth surfaces. And that connector is pretty darned ugly.

Motorola Moto Z review

If there's one missing feature - no, not the headphone jack - it's water resistance. The Moto Z has a water-repellent nano coating, provided by P2i, but this means it's really no different from any other phone that can't survive being submerged in water. But, if you do want a waterproof phone with similar specs, you'll have to spend a lot more.

Moto Z review: Moto Mods

It’s all very well having the thinnest phone in the world (or, at least, one of them) but this is rather negated once you snap on a PowerPack. And you will from time to time as the Moto Z really needs that extra battery life.

There are various Power Packs available, including the Incipio offGRID and others. They cost around £60, and can double the phone’s battery life. You'll want to carry one around at all times.

Much more interesting is the Hasselblad True Zoom. This costs £199.99 and was developed by Motorola and Hassleblad to counter the three ‘pain points’ of phone photography. The first is, of course, a zoom. It manages to pack in a 10x zoom (25-250mm 35mm equivalent) in a package just 15.1mm thick, and weighing 145g (note that this is more than the Moto Z!).

Motorola Moto Z review

Second is the ability to shoot in RAW, or RAW+JPEG if you prefer. You can then process images in Adobe Lightroom or any other application which supports the RAW files.

Third is low-light performance. Although we're not going to do an in-depth review on the True Zoom here, it significantly outperformed the Moto Z’s built-in camera in low light, producing sharp-looking, almost grain-free images. We did notice that some images were a little soft towards the edges, and when we reviewed images actual detail levels were on a par with the best smartphone cameras, rather than rivalling a DSLR.

Motorola Moto Z review

The Samsung Galaxy camera was the first phone to have a built-in zoom lens, but here you can remove the camera when you don’t need it and use a different accessory.

When attached, though, the camera and phone work seamlessly together as one. We like the dual-stage shutter button with a zoom rocker in front of it, and the fact that it has a proper Xenon flash.

The bad news is that, although there’s optical stabilisation, only electronic is used when shooting video. And that video is limited to just 1080p at 30fps – disappointing when the 12Mp sensor is plenty for 4K, and the Moto Z (and Z Play) can both shoot 4K using their built-in cameras.

However, the key point here is that you can have a surprisingly portable 10x optical zoom on your phone and - for some people - this will make the Moto Z (or Z Play) a very tempting phone indeed.

Another fun Moto Mod is the Insta-Share projector (£249.99). Again, it lives up to its name by instantly attaching and projecting whatever is on your phone’s screen. It has a built-in battery and stand, plus auto keystone correction to give you a square (well, rectangular) image no matter what angle you hold or place the phone. All you need to adjust is focus.

Moto Z review hands-on projector

We tried the projector in a fairly well-lit room and found that if you limit the size to around 30in, it’s possible to see bright content without too many problems. Trying to watch a night scene in a video or a dark photo proved near impossible so, as with most pico projectors, it’s best used in the dark.

The JBL SoundBoost certainly adds volume compared to the Moto Z’s built-in speaker but it’s not as good as the best portable Bluetooth speakers you can buy. Still, you won’t have any problems with stuttering or going out of range as this isn’t a wireless connection of course. It's particularly good for podcasts, but is also good for games, videos and even a the occasional bit of music.

Motorola Moto Z review

Moto Z review: Performance

We already know how the Snapdragon 820 performs in other current flagship phones and it’s no slouch in the Moto Z either. Everything feels silky smooth – helped no doubt by the excellent screen.

Overall, performance is almost on a par with the new Google Pixel XL (which uses a Snapdragon 821), so in pure performance terms, you're getting great value: that phone is considerably more expensive than the Moto Z.

Also, it's important to notice how much more powerful it is than the cheaper Moto Z Play, and this - along with the higher resolution screen - helps to justify that extra cost. But on the flip side, the OnePlus 3 also uses the Snapdragon 820, and is even cheaper than the Moto Z Play. Plus, its lower-resolution screen means it can offer higher frame rates in games. Here, the Moto Z's Quad HD screen counts against it.

Moto Z review: Connectivity

The Moto Z has a Cat 6 LTE modem - the Qualcomm X12 built into the Snapdragon 820.This supports up to 450Mb/s or 600Mb/s on comaptible networks. It has all the other ingredients a flagship should have: 802.11ac Wi-Fi with 2x2 MU-MIMO, Bluetooth 4.1, NFC and Assisted GPS. 

The only disappointment is that it's a single-SIM model for the UK; you can only get a dual-SIM Moto Z in other countries. On the UK model, the SIM tray takes one nano SIM, plus a microSD card for expanding the 32GB of on-board storage. Theoretically, you can add up to 2TB, but no such capacity is yet available in a microSD card.

Moto Z review: Cameras

Motorola Moto Z review

In good light, the Moto Z's f/1.8 lens and 13Mp sensor capture great-looking photos. Plus, optical stabilisation works effectively to smooth out jerkiness when shooting video, even when you're walking. Note that it will default to 16:9 photos at 9.7Mp unless you swipe in from the left and change it to 4:3, whereupon you get the full 13Mp.

There's laser-assisted AF, and in general performance is very good with very minimal shutter lag. If you want to record video in 4K, you're limited to 30fps (no surprise there - no phone can yet handle 60fps) but you can choose 60fps if you select 1080p video.

Around the front is a 5Mp selfie camera which does an admirable job of taking relatively detailed and sharp pictures (in good light, that is). Unusually, there's an LED flash on the front, but you'll only benefit from the 'Colour Correlated Temperature' dual-LED flash when using the rear camera.

Things fall down when light levels drop, and the Moto Z finds it harder to get focus lock. Also, there's more noise than we're used to with flagship phones in low light. It's not terrible, but the Moto Z's camera is not the very best you can get on a phone right now. But stick to using it during the day (which most people do anyway) and you'll be pleased with the results.

Here's a shot of St Pancras in the standard automatic mode. Notice in the 100 percent crop below that details are not as sharp as on other phones. However, this could be Motorola's decision not to over-sharpen when processing the RAW files: you can lightly sharpen images in Photoshop and get pretty good results.

Motorola Moto Z review

Motorola Moto Z review

We'd recommend avoiding the HDR mode because of the chance of ghosting. We tried to keep as still as possible for this photo, but moving subjects, such as this bus, ended up with ghosting from the movement between exposures:

Motorola Moto Z review

Moto Z review: Software

If you’ve already owned a Motorola phone, you’ll know that the company sticks closely to Google’s version of Android. It comes with Marshmallow, and is set to get Nougat in December 2016.

Motorola Moto Z review

Android may look stock, but there are a number of tricks such as being able to double-chop the phone to turn on and off the LED flash, double-twist to launch the camera app and hover your hand over the screen to quickly see the time and updates.

There’s also Attentive Display (a feature absent from the Moto Z Play) which keeps the screen from dimming or turning off while you’re looking at it. This uses the IR sensors in conjunction with the camera, which could explain why the Play doesn’t have it – it doesn’t have IR sensors.

The Moto Z is Daydream compatible, whereas the Z Play is not. Daydream is Google’s new VR headset and it requires phones to meet a certain minimum specification. For more, see What is Google Daydream.

Motorola Moto Z review

The special connector tells the phone which accessory is connected, and you will see tutorials such as the True Zoom above when you first connect one.

Read next: Best new phones coming in 2017

Motorola Moto Z: Specs

  • Android 6.0 Marshmallow
  • 5.5in, 2560x140 super AMOLED display, 535ppi
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor
  • 4GB RAM
  • 32GB storage
  • Micro-SD card slot
  • Fingerprint sensor
  • 802.11ac dual band Wi-Fi with MIMO
  • Bluetooth 4.1
  • A-GPS
  • NFC
  • USB-C
  • 13Mp rear camera
  • 5Mp front camera
  • 4G LTE (Cat 6)
  • 2600mAh non-removable battery
  • 153.3 x 75.3 x 5.19mm
  • 136g
  • Android 6.0 Marshmallow
  • 5.5in, 2560x140 super AMOLED display, 535ppi
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor
  • 4GB RAM
  • 32GB storage
  • Micro-SD card slot
  • Fingerprint sensor
  • 802.11ac dual band Wi-Fi with MIMO
  • Bluetooth 4.1
  • A-GPS
  • NFC
  • USB-C
  • 13Mp rear camera
  • 5Mp front camera
  • 4G LTE (Cat 6)
  • 2600mAh non-removable battery
  • 153.3 x 75.3 x 5.19mm
  • 136g

OUR VERDICT

The Moto Z is a mixed bag, successful in some areas and not in others. As long as you can deal with the jettisoning of the headphone jack and carrying a Power Pack Mod, the modular nature of the Moto Z makes it a compelling alternative to other flagships. It’s also arguably a better choice than the LG G5. Battery life isn't great, though and the Moto Z Play is also compatible with Moto Mods, too.

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